Free Enterprise Staff  | July 9, 2015

$27 Trillion: The Most Important Number to Know This Year

Forget about “The Six Million Dollar Man”—or even the “Six Billion Dollar Man,” Mark Wahlberg’s upcoming reboot of the iconic film series—the most important number you need to know this week is this: $27 trillion. Why? That’s how much additional money the U.S. economy could generate over the next 80 years if all of its students received a basic level of skills in their classrooms.

Such were the findings of “Universal Basic Skills: What Countries Stand to Gain,” a report that economists Ludger Woessmann and Eric Hanushek of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) recently released. While $27 trillion is undoubtedly a gargantuan figure—U.S. gross domestic product totaled $17.4 trillion in 2014, according to the World Bank—it only serves to underscore how vitally important skills are to the U.S. and its economic standing.

The report’s findings won’t come as a surprise to corporate leaders. From Mark Zuckerberg to Bill Gates, high-profile businesspeople have long called for a renewed focus on skills learning at U.S. schools. Understandably, leaders of such tech-heavy companies would be concerned about the skill levels of its future engineers, developers, and programmers.

But this isn’t necessarily about being able to write code – this report is looking at the basics, which they call “Level 1” skills, defined as demonstrating “elementary skills to read and understand simple texts and master basic mathematical and scientific concepts and procedures.”

How does the U.S. fare? Not well: Roughly one-quarter of all 15-year-olds cannot complete what the OECD report defined as “Level 1 tasks.” Our friends at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation Blog offer some context:

“If we can provide all students with these basic skills by 2030, the average gross domestic product (GDP) would be 3.5% higher. Ironically, this is what the U.S. spends on primary and secondary schools annually. So, if we can achieve this goal, the economic benefit would be enough to pay for K-12 schooling for every child in the U.S.”

While the future isn’t assured, the stakes are so high that pressure is mounting on policy makers, business officials, and other government leaders to act—and quickly.

“While the researchers acknowledge that there is no silver bullet, they recommend improving teacher quality, having a strong accountability system, provide performance pay for teachers, and allow parents more school options for their children.

These are the same things that the business community has been advocating for over the years. (And will continue to do so).”

To learn more about the report and its findings, check out the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation Blog, which took a deep into the study.